Complaining on Twitter can occasionally work wonders.
I was in a car accident a few years ago — not my fault — and went months without hearing from the other guy’s insurance company. Then I sent a message to the company’s Twitter account. A few short weeks later, I had a settlement offer in my inbox.
The lesson was reinforced late last year when I pleaded on Twitter for Baltimore County officials to make public the list of restaurants closed by the county’s Department of Health. Baltimore City has long posted those closures online, but when I reached the county’s health department asking for a similar list, I was told I would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get that information.
“Oh, COME ON!” I wanted to yell. The process of filing a FOIA request — or Maryland Public Information Act request, as it is called in this state — can be cumbersome. I’ve seen officials drag their feet in response, though the law says you should really only take as long as you need to review a given request. The Baltimore Banner is fortunate enough to have an attorney who can sometimes help pick up the pace with a few emails — but that, too, takes time.
I thought it was ridiculous that such information, clearly in the public interest, could only be available by jumping through hoops. Obviously, neighboring Baltimore City had deemed these records important enough to list on the health department’s website and even share on a Twitter account. And in really, really advanced places like New York City, restaurants even get a grade from the health inspector that they’re required to post on their premises.
So, I took to Twitter.
That same day, I received apologetic phone calls from two spokespeople for Baltimore County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. promising to remedy the situation. Within weeks, I was receiving weekly emails from the Baltimore County health department informing me which establishments had been closed that week.
The Banner then began including those establishments in a weekly roundup as part of our free food newsletter, The Dish, which is sent out on Wednesdays.
While this was a better situation than before, it wasn’t ideal. There was still no publicly available way for residents to look up recent restaurant closures. Until now.
This week, Baltimore County is rolling out a dashboard in the form of an interactive map that includes all the restaurant closures for the past year, along with the reason for the shutdown. Restaurants appear as color-coded dots, with red dots signifying places closed within the last three months.
Momen Abukhdeir, the county’s chief data and performance officer, spent about four months creating the tool, which he says is updated daily with new information from the health department.
He’s seen in demonstrations of the tool just how interested people are in checking the status of their favorite restaurant. “It reinforced that the average person is interested in knowing if the place they eat has any critical violations,” he said. Diners who check Yelp and Google reviews before they spend their money at a restaurant will want to look them up here, too.
It also helped him appreciate that oftentimes, restaurants aren’t closed for violations that might seem the grossest or most troubling to consumers. The reasons can be as simple as a leak, or having water that’s not hot or cold enough.
The map is also useful for health inspectors, he said, allowing them to “take a countywide look” at restaurant closures.
Abukhdeir said the dashboard reflects a greater push towards openness and transparency from Olszewski, a Democrat who came into office in 2018. “I’ve worked in different administrations. … This is the first time that I’ve been given so much freedom to push as much as I can to be public,” Abukhdeir said.
Two spokespeople for the health department told me it was my tweet that inspired this idea.
Now, my only question is: What should I complain about next?